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Knights in Shining Armor

Camp Nelson Defends the Union

Knights in Shining Armor

One seldom thinks of women packing heat or swinging swords: munitions have traditionally been the province of men. At the new Frazier Historical Arms Museum, however, women and weapons are given their due, from Annie Oakley and her Kentucky long rifle to Queen Elizabeth I and her ample arsenal that she inherited from Henry VIII.

Women are a small but significant chapter in the story of the history of arms and related artifacts. It is a human story that documents the utility, technology, and even artistry of armaments told from both the American and British perspectives.

Located in Louisville’s cultural arts district, the museum began as a pet project of Owsley Brown Frazier, who grew up in the city. In 1974, he lost a Kentucky long rifle—a gift from the grandfather, who he spent summers with in Canada—to a tornado that ripped through his hometown. His desire to replace the family heirloom led to a serious effort in collecting armaments that grew more discriminating over time and eventually became the Frazier Historical Arms portion of the museum.

This collection includes early American artifacts dating from the Colonial era to the early 1900s, like Daniel Boone’s family Bible and the well-worn bow and quivers of Apache warrior Geronimo. It’s also home to the 1863 ivory-handled Colt Navy pistols of Gen. George Armstrong Custer and Teddy Roosevelt’s “Big Stick,” a 1909 Royal Grade Double Rifle made by Holland & Holland Ltd.

In a historic first—and by an act of Parliament, no less—the Royal Armouries of Great Britain joined forces with the Frazier collection to tell the story of British and European arms and armor and their influence upon the design and development of American weapons for historical context, and to tell the larger story beyond America’s beginnings in Jamestown. Lending more than 400 artifacts from the 11th century to the 20th century to the museum, the Armouries created a mini-museum with objects that will be returned to England every three years and replaced by others.

There are iron maidens, suits of armor, breastplates, jousting lances, swords, daggers, and life-size tableaux depicting battle scenes including the Spanish Armada. The circa-1580 Flemish burgonet (part of a set of armor) that most likely belonged to Elizabethan poet and soldier Sir Philip Sydney is here, as is a 15th-century mail shirt and hauberk constructed entirely of riveted mail rings with borders of brass rings, standing as a silent testimonial to the superb craftsmanship of its maker.

Guns and gauntlets, helmets and war hats aside, it is really the people behind the armaments in the museum that bring the history of the individual pieces to life. Each chapter unfolds on three floors at the Frazier Historical Arms Museum through exhibitions, life-size dioramas, feature films, video stations, hands-on activities (experience the weight of a helmet or the heft of a sword), costumed interpreters, and two re-enactment areas that include a tournament ring with live demonstrations showing use of arms and armor.

One can almost see a 1400s English metal smith laboring over a chain-mail shirt for a wealthy warrior—and remembering to include a ring set in the left armpit for attaching an amulet near the heart. Or envision legendary frontier femme Annie Oakley (born Phoebe Ann Moses and nicknamed Little Sure Shot) shooting game with her father’s Kentucky long rifle.


Frazier Historical Arms Museum
829 West Main Street, Louisville, KY 40202, (502) 412-2280, or online at

Hotels nearby include the historic Seelbach Hilton, (800) 333-3399, or online at; Courtyard by Marriott, (502) 562-0200 or; Galt House Hotel & Suites, (502) 589-5200 or; and Hyatt Regency, (502) 587-3434 or

On display in late fall, the collection will also include this showstopper: the only long gun known to exist that was owned by George Washington, made in 1791.

Getting Around Town
Two trolleys, at 25 cents a ride, circulate the downtown area near most of the attractions, making it a snap to museum hop, dine, and shop. Call (502) 585-1234 or go online at

For more information, contact the Louisville Convention and Visitors Bureau at (800) 626-5646, (502) 584-2121, or online at

Of Wars and Weaponry
A number of other museums in the Bluegrass spotlight Kentucky’s role in wars and weaponry:

Civil War Museum/Old Bardstown Village
310 East Broadway Street
Bardstown, KY 40004 • (502) 349-0291

Kentucky Military History Museum
125 East Main Street at Capitol Avenue
Frankfort, KY, 40601 • (502) 564-3265

Patton Museum of Cavalry and Armor
4554 Fayette Avenue
Fort Knox, KY 40121 • (888) 212-6767

Women of the Civil War Museum
202 East Broadway Street
Bardstown, KY 40004
(502) 349-0291

Kathy Witt is a regular contributor to the Traveling Kentucky column.
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Camp Nelson Defends the Union

Few Kentuckians are aware of two distinctions Camp Nelson held in the Civil War. When the Union Army Supply Depot was attacked by stage-handsome, devil-may-care John Hunt Morgan, his Confederate command was repelled by volunteer combatants. And some 10,000 African-Americans enlisted and trained here, making it the third largest training depot for black soldiers in America.

When Morgan’s Raiders launched its all-out attack to take over the immense quantities of government stores, Union Major C.E. Compton called for volunteers from the employees. Without exception, 600 armed men joined regular soldiers to fight off invaders for six consecutive nights.

Camp Nelson became a refuge camp for the enlisted black soldiers who gained their freedom for their enlistment. Many brought their families. Ninety-seven cottages, plus numerous tents and shacks, provided housing for more than 3,000 people. The Rev. John G. Fee, well-known abolitionist and founder of Berea College, helped administer and teach at the camp.

Camp Nelson National Cemetery, adjacent to Camp Nelson Civil War Heritage Park, was founded in 1863. More than 4,000 Civil War dead, as well as veterans from all later wars, are buried there.

All original camp structures were dismantled by the army. Still, many archaeological features remain intact, some in excellent condition. Six earthen forts with its entrenchment line are part of the preserved location.

The one remaining building of the 300 within the camp is the White House. Seized from the residents (the Oliver Perry family), it served as the officers’ quarters. Meticulously restored, today it depicts both the life of the Perry family (in antebellum Kentucky) and the military history. An annual tea in December commemorates restoration of this two-story mansion.

The site is bounded by the Kentucky River and Hickman Creek, both enclosed by The Palisades, the nearly vertical limestone walls that extend skyward 500 feet. Civil War buffs can follow the interpretive trail—and vividly imagine what life was like at this military installation.

Some of the most dramatic cliffs of The Palisades surround the Jim Beam Nature Preserve around Camp Nelson and High Bridge. Opened in 1877, High Bridge was the first cantilever bridge in North America, the highest span over a navigable river until the early 20th century.

The newly restored High Bridge Park is four miles from picturesque Wilmore, six miles from Camp Nelson. The area was settled by Revolutionary War soldiers. Bishop Francis Asbury, the famed Methodist circuit rider, built his Bethel Academy here in 1790. Today, the beautiful buildings of Asbury College and Asbury Theological Seminary stand as namesakes to his legacy.

Wilmore’s main street is on the National Register of Historic Places. The area is kept attractive with brick border sidewalks, old-fashioned street lamps, and Keeneland benches. Visitors may stay at Scott Station Inn Bed and Breakfast, or Beeson Manor at the seminary.

No-charge tours are available at Camp Nelson Civil War Heritage Park (including the White House) Tuesday-Saturday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m., Mondays by appointment.

For more info, write Camp Nelson Civil War Heritage Park, 200 South Main Street, Nicholasville, KY 40356, call (859) 881-5716, or go online to


Union’s First Victory
Another park Civil War enthusiasts will want to visit is Mill Springs Battlefield in Nancy, near Somerset.

Major General George Bibb Crittenden thirsted for victory when he led his 4,000 Confederate combatants into an early morning raid against an equal number of Union soldiers ensconced at Logan’s Crossroads, now the town of Nancy. Instead, he stirred up a hornet’s nest that became the Battle of Mill Springs.

When the bitter fighting ended, Brigadier General Felix K. Zollicoffer was among the Rebel dead. Crittenden’s soldiers, in disarray, retreated to their Beech Grove entrenchments on the Cumberland River.

General George H. Thomas commanded the Unionists, who fought off charge after charge of the determined Rebels. When the smoke cleared, 205 soldiers (150 Confederates and 55 Federals) were left dead or mortally wounded. The attackers left behind 14 artillery pieces.

No longer lusting to fight, remnants of the Confederate contingent left the bloody field. Union soldiers followed in hot pursuit, opening a barrage on the enemy’s campsite and the steamboat Noble Ellis.

Recognizing that his soldiers were badly beaten, General Crittenden ordered an unexpected withdrawal across the Cumberland. Within hours the steamboat ferried them out of harm’s way. The fighting that began on January 19, 1862, was over. The North savored the victory, its first in the nine-month-old war.

The driving tour is a self-guided activity. Group tours may be arranged (no fee schedule, but contributions are accepted). A Candle Light Tour will be 6:30-9:30 p.m. on November 6. Other 2005 scheduled events include a January 22 Generals March from Gap of the Ridge to Zollicoffer Park at 5 a.m. and annual battlefield observance at the park at 1 p.m.; April 29, Riverboat Night on the Cumberland, 7 p.m.; May 28, Cornbread Festival at Mill Springs, 10 a.m.–2 p.m.; May 30, Memorial Day Celebration at the cemetery at 11 a.m. followed by observance at Zollicoffer Park; and June 25-26, Living History Demonstration.

For more information, write Mill Springs Battlefield, P.0. Box 814, Somerset, KY 42502, call (606) 679-1859, or go online to

George T. Wilson

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